Bryan Singer getting kid-friendlier with “Jack the Giant Slayer” isn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. He’s still dabbling with truth and legend — literally in this case — only the fairy tale is more overt. But instead of going dark, as with “The Usual Suspects” or “X-Men,” he’s lightened up while fully embracing virtual production and 3-D.
Think “The Princess Bride” meets “Clash of the Titans” (with more contemporary allusions to “The Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar”). “There were no fairy tale movies [when I began ‘Jack’] and I thought it would be fun to bring a fairytale life on a grand level,” Singer explains. “Even though we’re not telling the original ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ story, I wanted to play around with a real giant beanstock and a race of giants. Eventually, as a lot of fairy tale movies started coming out, I started noticing that people were making these bold choices, and I just wanted to make mine as real and as fun as possible.
“I love films like ‘The Princess Bride,’ and ‘Jurassic Park,’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ — brighter, more humorously-toned films. And they can be much more kid-friendly. It’s gotta be scary but not upsetting, you can’t do ‘Zero Dark Thirty.'”
Still, there’s something innocent and sincere in Singer’s retelling of the classic fairy tale, and in his casting of Nicholas Hoult as Jack (whom he previously cast as Beast in “X-Men: First Class,” which he will reprise in the upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It recalls “Superman Returns”; however, Jack represents the latest in a long line of social misfits or extraordinarily talented outsiders. “I identify with Jack,” Singer concedes, “who’s very awkward and it takes him a while to become a hero and a lot longer to become a man.”
Of course, Singer also identifies with the giants, who are the real stars and band of outsiders. They’re not a breeding society — there are no female giants — but they’re a bloodthirsty race that’s created from the earth, and Singer wanted them to be lean, mean, and fast. While there’s a “Lord of the Rings” look about them, there’s more of a symbiotic relationship with their environment.
“If you get really close, the surface of the skin appears almost like rocks, the hair looks like grass,” Singer continues. “They live in a stony, desolate landscape. I wanted my giants to be different. I grew up watching ‘Clash of the Titans’ so this is my version of that kind of movie with all the bells and whistles we have in the visual effects world and Ray [Harryhausen] would’ve gotten a kick out of it, I think.”
The giants are led by Bill Nighy’s General Fallon, a two-headed creature inspired by “How to Get Ahead in Advertising” (in which the protagonist’s shoulder sprouts an evil, talking boil). But this was a late decision affected by budgetary considerations.
“I had seen illustrations in old books about ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ that portrayed giants with two heads, so I thought it would be fun if there was a fierce monster giant with two heads,” Singer adds. “That was written into the script initially. Then Dan Studney had one beat where the two heads interacted with each other. But the character was tangential and I cut the sequence to save $4 million. Once I cut my scene I lost my two-headed giant so I thought why don’t I give my lead two heads and then I could have some fun with the interaction?”
To animate this bizarre race of 25-foot creatures and the world they inhabit called Gantua, Singer turned to facial capture giant Digital Domain (“Benjamin Button,” “Tron Legacy”). Under the VFX supervision of Stephen Rosenbaum, DD advanced its process and virtual production studio in collaboration with Giant Studios, which handled body mocap. Meanwhile, VFX vet Hoyt Yeatman oversaw the entire visual effects for “Jack” (which included The Third Floor doing previs and MPC handling the crucial CG beanstalk). The work is so good that I suspect we might see “Jack” competing in next year’s Academy VFX bakeoff.
As you could imagine, though, it was difficult getting the giants to look and perform believably and menacingly (there’s also some gross humor thrown in for good measure). In fact, Singer first met with James Cameron and Andy Serkis to pick their brains about mocap and performance capture.
“I wanted to get a better understanding of the best way to achieve it, edit it, and utilize it,” Singer admits. “And I learned Simul-Cam [created on ‘Avatar’ to integrate the live with the virtual in real-time]…They projected crude renderings of the giants into the actual monitors and in the space so I could see them on the set and articulate things to actors. When it came time to get into the volume with Bill Nighy and the other actors, I took to it quickly. It’s like you’re doing performance art in front of NASA. We just sit and play around and act out the scene and I can stand next to the actors because I’m invisible. The time to play the most is on the mocap stage. I could orchestrate everything to match the giants.”
As for 3-D, Singer was adamant about shooting natively on Red Epic cameras instead of dimensionalizing it in post. “I took a lot of great care. It was very important to shoot native stereo and it changed the style of shooting for me. I ended up using wider lenses, different kinds of camera movements; and I paid closer attention to foreground.”
Interestingly, Singer’s favorite moment is the first reveal of the giants at the watering hole with the sheep as Jack hides underwater. It stands apart from the more heightened and humorous aspects of the fairy tale: it’s filled with genuine tension and terror.
Speaking of 3-D, Singer admits that he’ll be shooting “X-Men: Days of Future Passed” natively as well when production begins next month in Montreal. He’s excited about returning to the Marvel franchise for the first time in a decade. But even though this will be the most elaborate movie he’s ever made (partially taking place in the ’70s with the appearance of Richard Nixon), Singer says it won’t require the same virtual production demands as “Jack.”
“There’s not going to be as much need for fully rendered CG characters in ‘X-Men’ because generally they’re played by real people,” Singer suggests. “They’re not creatures but humans with a mutation. But all technology advances help and you learn from each movie.”